Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Assad’s position strengthens in lead-up to Geneva talks

The Geneva II conference on Syria has been scheduled for January 22. As things stand, the Syrian opposition views the idea of a conference with trepidation. If it fails to participate, the opposition may be marginalised and accused of rejecting a peace settlement; if it does participate, the Al Assad rule may be implicitly legitimised.

Not surprisingly, President Bashar Al Assad finds himself in a much stronger position today. His army has made significant gains around Damascus, Homs and Aleppo, to the extent that no one is seriously considering the opposition demand that negotiations be based on a prior condition that the president leave office.

The opposition, meanwhile, is in disarray, which has changed the dynamics of the Syrian uprising. The main opposition in exile, the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, has announced that it will attend the Geneva conference, but otherwise has no power on the ground in Syria to implement an eventual deal. In turn, the fragmented armed groups in Syria, which hold true power, have staunchly refused to go to Geneva.

On top of this, Mr Al Assad can take solace in the fact that the narrative has changed. His savage repression and responsibility for tens of thousands of Syrian dead have slipped into the background, as fears have arisen that Syria is fast becoming a base for Al Qaeda, and as Al Qaeda-affiliated groups have initiated a military campaign against more moderate opposition groups.

Al Qaeda’s shadow has covered everything, which is precisely what Mr Al Assad wants. Even Syrian opposition figures are now addressing this publicly. Gen Salim Idriss, who heads the Free Syrian Army, told journalist David Ignatius that the main Al Qaeda group, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (Isis), had become “very dangerous for the future of Syria” and that once Mr Al Assad left office, his forces would join the regular Syrian army in fighting Isis.

But Mr Al Assad has other ideas. He has no intention of departing, and his main weapon in avoiding such an outcome is to give wide latitude to the Al Qaeda-affiliated groups, to sow dissension in the opposition’s ranks, while portraying his regime as a bastion against militant jihadists. With the help of Iran and Russia, the Syrian president hopes to use Geneva to consolidate his position.

Whether Mr Al Assad is physically present at the conference or not, he will be the principal interlocutor of the Syrian opposition and of the Arab and western powers hostile to his regime, just as he was over the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons. This will confer on the president a measure of recognition, while buying time for his army and allies to make more military advances, increasing his leverage.

All talk of Mr Al Assad stepping down will be put on hold, as this threatens to block the diplomatic track. Nor, in truth, do western countries, above all the United States, really want him to step down, if by doing so he leaves behind a volatile political vacuum in Syria.

Instead, their strategy is to encourage Mr Al Assad to depart once a smooth transition of authority can be agreed – in other words the president is expected to voluntarily surrender his own authority. But as Mr Al Assad has absolutely no intention of doing so, the western scheme is absurd. And because it is, and western governments know this, they will sign off on any agreement that can scale back the violence in Syria, whatever Mr Al Assad’s political fate.

The moderate Syrian opposition is equally lucid about its dire situation, but can do little to improve matters. Hopelessly divided, battling the regime and Isis simultaneously, devoid of a realistic political vision to end the Syrian conflict, it will yet have to go to Geneva, even if it knows that its setbacks will most probably be reflected in any political plan that emerges from the conference.

Expect the National Coalition to do two things in Geneva: to be intransigent, in order to regain some credibility with the opposition inside Syria; and to stall, in the hope that this may change the balance on the battlefield, as countries such as Saudi Arabia scramble to unify the opposition and send much-needed weapons. However, anything that threatens the success of Geneva and a post-Geneva diplomatic phase will antagonise the Obama administration, which is eager to end the war in Syria quickly and initiate a political alternative.

What this could very possibly mean is that Washington will accept a transitional government, even if it requires that Mr Al Assad’s fate remains undefined. This would satisfy the Syrian president, as acceptance of such an outcome by the National Coalition would provoke further rifts between the opposition at home and in exile.

The Russians, anticipating this, have sought to include in the Geneva talks so-called domestic opposition groups that are willing to leave Mr Al Assad in power. By complicating the picture, Moscow is manoeuvring so that groups friendlier to Mr Al Assad will impose an agenda the regime can accept, while armed groups inside Syria will be depicted as obstacles to peace. The opposition will be further discredited, allowing the regime to make additional military progress.

Geneva will be a first step in a longer interplay of negotiations and war. Little will be resolved there, but the aim is to get the ball rolling. Mr Al Assad can be satisfied that, despite his appalling crimes, he is more secure than he has been in nearly three years. He has Russian and Iranian intransigence, and western stupidity, to thank for that.

No comments: